Luke (Harris) and Jackie (Sarandon) have two great kids, but they just
couldn't hold their marriage together. Their split-up was difficult for
12-year-old Anna (Malone) and gradeschooler Ben (Aiken), but the fact that
their dad has hooked up with young Isabel (Roberts) makes it clear that
any hope of a parental reconciliation is a pipe dream. Isabel, a talented
ad photographer who admits that she never wanted to be a mother, tries her
best to please Luke's kids when she's with them. But her unorganized style
is a sharp contrast to Jackie's model of efficiency, and the kids react
with resentment when she gets up late and fails to have them ready in time
for school. The open hostility between Jackie and Isabel doesn't help the
situation, and it looks as if the kids are being put in the middle of a
war between the moms.
After a few parental successes by Isabel and a few minor failures by
Jackie, an uneasy detente arises. Then a bombshell lands on both fronts:
Jackie is diagnosed with cancer, and Luke and Isabel plan to marry. Faced
with the fact that Isabel may soon be the only mom in the picture, the entire
family must find a way to deal with a very uncomfortable situation.
The fault with Gigi Levangie's screenplay (her debut effort) is not so
much the story, but the dialogue. It's clear they were trying, but even
these actors can't overcome cloying lines like, "Mommy, if you want
me to hate her, I will." And the fact that Levangie had a half dozen
other writers helping her didn't help. The choice to use cancer to get the
ocular juices flowing is not only an overused technique, but it's already
been done this year in the aforementioned Thing. This story could
have supported itself as a simple mother/stepmother conflict; throwing in
the c-word makes it too easy.
The best thing about this film are the relationships. The animosity-to-mutual-respect
path taken by Isabel and Jackie is ridiculously simple (Jackie is too villainous
at first; Isabel too sympathetic), but they're so good they make us believe
it anyway. The kids are beautiful; though Aiken never really hits the resentment
against Isabel that is called for in the script, his delivery is astoundingly
real for a kid his age, and his pie-face smile is absolutely irresistable.
The connection between him and Malone is perfect sibling ambivalence. Columbus
clearly works well with kids; his success here is similar to that of the
other kid-related movies he has helmed, such as Home Alone and Mrs.
Doubtfire. Harris, though a good actor, is not really given much to
do; his role is as a buffer between the ladies and the kids, and he is not
even present during much of the film's midsection.
The final reel is certainly not short of watery-eyed goodness, some of which is justified, some wrenched out cheaply and shamelessly. But Stepmom is almost worth seeing, if only for the performances. And John Williams's music adds emotion with a subtlety that is seriously lacking in the script. ***½
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